Jamie McMurray enjoyed one of the best coming-out parties in NASCAR history.
In 2002, in just his second Sprint Cup start, McMurray won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, substituting for Sterling Marlin, who was sidelined with a broken vertebra. The following season McMurray won Rookie of the Year honors over future teammate Greg Biffle.
But after a dozen seasons at the Cup level, McMurray’s role has reversed from the newcomer at Ganassi Racing to being a mentor for racing phenom Kyle Larson.
Certainly, the landscape has changed dramatically in NASCAR since McMurray arrived and was taken under the wing of Team Toupee — the rambunctious driving combination of Marlin and Jimmy Spencer who ruled the Ganassi ranks. The atmosphere was never dull, particularly in the No. 40 hauler.
What did he glean from Marlin? Nothing that McMurray will reveal in public.
"I will tell you — maybe not racing-related — but I learned a lot from Sterling Marlin," McMurray said. "It’s true. That was an experience. You could say that, but I would rather keep my relationship with Sterling private.
"I really enjoyed having Sterling as a teammate. Sterling was very honest and just said it like it was. He was a really good teammate because he raced you really clean on the race track. To me, when I was at Roush (Fenway Racing, 2006-2009) and you have four other teammates, when you go to a plate race, you spent the whole time trying not to hurt the four other guys on your team, which a lot of times would hurt you. So, this will be good with Kyle, and it was the same way with Sterling — a really good teammate to race with."
Until now, however, McMurray "hasn’t had a lot of time" to spend with Larson. But that’s going to change this weekend during the Rolex 24 at Daytona. While some organizations have executive retreats to encourage team building, owner Chip Ganassi simply elected to send McMurray and Larson sports car racing. The exercise is paying off.
"I think Chip letting Kyle do this race was really good for getting our relationship going," McMurray said. "I know Kyle. I’ve been around him a little bit. We did the one Charlotte test together, but it was so rushed that because of the race and all the testing NASCAR wanted us to do that we never got a chance to talk and hang out.
"So when you’re here, when we get to this race, you’re here for four or five days, even though there’s a lot of track time, you don’t get a lot because you’re sharing the car. So I got to spend a more time with Kyle. (Thursday) we — the whole group of us drivers — ended up in the lounge for an hour, telling jokes and not talking about racing, just laughing and getting to know each other, and I thought that was really good for our relationship."
Larson, who shares a love of karting with McMurray, finds his veteran teammate "easy to work with." The 21-year-old rookie candidate said McMurray was extremely helpful during Daytona testing earlier this month, particularly given Larson’s limited familiarity with drafting at restrictor-plate tracks.
"I’ve done a little plate racing, but he has a lot of experience," Larson said. "He was able to help me a lot with that stuff and taught me to be patient and allow other drivers to make moves and move forward instead of you being the guy to make the moves."
McMurray, competing in his fifth consecutive Rolex 24, is bonding with his fellow Ganassi teammates from the open-wheel ranks, as well. But this is the first time that Ganassi has recruited McMurray, 37, to pilot the No. 01 car along with Scott Pruett, who is attempting to become the first driver to win six overall titles in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Should McMurray win his first Rolex on Sunday, he would join an exclusive fraternity that includes Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, the only two drivers to score victories in this event and the Daytona 500. However, he would become the sole victor to claim both Daytona titles and the Brickyard 400.
"It’s a little different being on the 01 versus the 02," McMurray said of the two teams. "I haven’t been on here since 2010. Every year I’ve been on the other car, and that’s kind of been your competition, right? So it’s been odd, like all of the sudden being on the other car, but it’s been nice getting to know Scott (Dixon) and Memo (Rojas) better than what I did, and it’s been really interesting hearing Sage’s (Karam) stories of still being in high school and on the wrestling team. It’s so much different than any teammate I’ve had in a long time."
Once the Rolex is over, McMurray’s concentration will return to NASCAR. With Keith Rodden taking over as crew chief on the No. 1 Chevy, it will be a fresh start for the team. And after four years with Juan Pablo Montoya as his teammate, McMurray will experience a new dynamic with Larson. Over the next two weeks, the drivers will continue to forge their relationship before the stock-car crowd descends on Daytona on Feb. 14.
But when it comes time for the teammates to start the 2014 season, McMurray expects things to be "different" with Larson.
"He’s really easy to talk to," McMurray said. "He’s obviously a super-nice kid — a super-nice guy. It will be much different than what we’ve had in the past.
"I feel bad because I want to help, but I feel like every time I’ve mentioned like, ‘Hey, Kyle such and such,’ when I walk away, I just feel like his dad. I feel like he’s thinking, ‘OK, Jamie, I knew that.’ So, I’m trying hard not to. I really want to be helpful and help him not make the same mistakes that maybe I did, but at the same I time I feel like when I do that I’m being his dad, and I don’t want to be that."